Last Lincolns

By Shira Gladstone

With the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth celebrated last year, and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War quickly approaching, one could say that now more than ever Abraham Lincoln’s life and leadership is being examined and honored. So, during this time of commemoration wouldn’t it be great if there were a direct descendent of Lincoln around, someone who could share family stories and provide further insight into a much studied icon of American history? Unfortunately, there are no direct descendents of President Lincoln alive today.

Robert Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln, 1922; Library of Congress

Abraham and Mary Lincoln had four sons together – Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas. Robert was born in 1843; just nine months after Abe and Mary were married. The next son, Edward, arrived in 1846. He was never a healthy child and just before his fourth birthday he died from (most likely) tuberculosis. Seemingly wanting to fill the void Eddie’s death had caused, the birth of William, in 1850, followed ten months later. David Herbert Donald notes in his seminal work Lincoln, “Willie was the most intelligent and the best-looking of all the Lincoln children, and from the day he was born his father doted on him.” Willie’s death from (most likely) typhoid fever, in February of 1862, hit President Lincoln especially hard; the family’s immense grief was one of the reasons they chose to live at the Soldiers’ Home for part of that year. The last son, Thomas (“Tad”), was born in 1853. Tad was the one son who was able to enjoy time at the Soldiers’ Home (Robert was at college throughout most of the Civil War). Yet unfortunately, he also died too soon. At the age of eighteen, after returning with his mother from a two and a half year trip to Europe, Tad passed away due to “compression of the heart.”

Robert was the only child of Abe and Mary to live into adulthood. He graduated from Harvard University in 1864, and left Harvard Law School to join the Union Army (he joined General Grant’s staff). When the War ended Robert moved back to Illinois and attended what is now the University of Chicago Law School. He married Mary Eunice Harlan in 1868 and they had three children together. He spent much of his career working for the Pullman Palace Car Company, eventually becoming its president and chairman of the board. Along with being an attorney, Robert was also a politician; he served as Secretary of War from 1881 to 1885 and as Ambassador to Great Britain from 1889 to 1893. He made his last public appearance at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. In 1926 Robert died at his home in Manchester, Vermont.

Robert Lincoln's kids

Robert’s children – Mary, Jack, and Jessie; Chicago History Museum

Robert and Mary’s eldest daughter, Mary, was born in 1869. Mary and her husband Charles Bradford Isham had one child named Lincoln. Lincoln did marry, but never had any children of his own. In 1873 Robert’s only son, Abraham “Jack” Lincoln II, was born. He died from blood poisoning at the age of sixteen. Jack was said to have been much like his famous grandfather. The youngest child, Jessie, arrived in 1875. Although she was married three times, it was only with her first husband – Warren Wallace Beckwith – that she had children. Her daughter, Mary Lincoln Beckwith, never married nor had children. Jessie’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, was married twice. His second wife claimed he fathered her son, yet Beckwith always denied this. Though DNA testing has never been done, it is generally believed that Beckwith was not the boy’s biological father. Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith was the last confirmed direct descendent of President Lincoln. He died in 1985.

Even with no one to carry on his family name, President Lincoln’s legacy is safe within public memory and culture. Still, it’s hard not to wish there was someone today who could provide a tangible link to one of our country’s greatest presidents.

Ms. Gladstone is the Events Coordinator at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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